Red Masquerade by Louis Joseph Vance
Book II. The Lone Wolf's Daughter
XXII. The Seven Brass Hinges
Into a space perhaps four feet in width from wall to wall and seven deep from the front door to the foot of a cramped flight of crazy wooden stairs, some ten people were crowded, Sofia and the maid Chou Nu in a knot of excited men.
In the saffron glow of an ill-trimmed paraffin lamp smoking in a wall bracket, desperate faces, yellow and brown and white, consulted one another with rolling eyeballs and strange tongues clamorous. Sofia heard the broken rustling of heavy respirations; she saw uncouth gesticulations carve the shadows; her nostrils were revolted by effluvia of unclean bodies, garments saturate with opium smoke and curious cookery, breaths sour with alcohol.
Two were busy at the door, under the direction of Prince Victor, setting stout bars into iron sockets. When they had finished, Victor elbowed them out of his way and thrust back the slide of a narrow horizontal peephole, through which he reconnoitred.
The tall, thin body stiffened as he looked, and without turning he flung an open hand behind him and snapped a demand in Chinese. Somebody slipped a revolver into his palm. Levelling it he sent a volley crashing through the peephole. Yells responded, and in the hush that fell upon the final shot a noise of fugitive feet scraping and stumbling on cobbles. A bullet struck the door a sounding thump and all but penetrated, raising a bump on the inner face of its thick oaken panels; and Victor shut the slide and turned back.
Subservient silence saluted him. He spoke in Chinese, issuing (Sofia gathered) instructions for the defense of the house. One by one the men designated dropped out of the group about her. Three shuffled off into a room adjoining the hallway. Two others ran briskly up the stairs. A sixth Victor directed to stand by the barred door. His chauffeur and another Chinaman he told off for his personal attendance.
The maid Chou Nu was left to shift for herself, and while Sofia could see her she did not shift a finger from her pose of terror, flattened to the wall. When Sofia came back that way, the girl had vanished, however. Nor was she seen again alive.
Her arms held fast, Sofia was partly led and partly dragged down the hall, Victor herding the group on past the staircase and into a bare room at the back of the house, where a solitary lamp burning on a deal table discovered for all other furnishing broken chairs, coils of tarred rope, a rack of ponderous oars and boat-hooks, a display of shapeless oilskins and sou'westers on pegs. The windows were boarded up from sills to lintels, the air was close and dank with the stale flavour of foul tidal waters.
Here Victor took charge of Sofia, the chauffeur holding the lamp to light the other Chinaman at his labours with a trap-door in the floor, a slab of woodwork so massive that, when its iron bolts had been drawn, it needed every whit of the man's strength to lift and throw it back upon its hinges; and its crashing fall made all the timbers quake and groan.
Through the square opening thus discovered Sofia saw a ladder of several slimy steps washed by black, oily waters that sucked and swirled sluggishly round spiles green with weed and ooze.
Down these steps the Chinaman crept gingerly, but halfway paused with a cry, then cringed back to the head of the ladder, yellow face blanched, slant eyes piteous with fear, as he exhibited an end of stout mooring line whose other end was made fast to a ring bolt in one of the joists.
With a smothered oath Victor snatched the rope's end from the trembling hand and examined it closely. Even Sofia could see that it had been cleanly severed by a knife.
Victor's countenance was ablaze as he dropped the rope. Before the tempest of his wrath the Chinaman bent like a reed, with faint, protesting bleats and feebly weaving hands.
But in full tide the tirade faltered, Victor seemed to forget his anger or else to remind himself it was puerile in contrast with the mortal issues that now confronted him.
He turned to Sofia eyes of cold fire in a wintry countenance.
"So," he pronounced, slowly, "it appears you are to have your way, after all, and more speedily than either of us reckoned. You are to die, and so am I, this day--you in my arms. Well, it is time, I daresay, when I permit myself to be duped and overreached by police spies like your persevering father and lover. Yes; I am ready to pay the price of my fatuity--but not until they had paid me for their victory--and dearly. Come!"
He motioned to the Chinese to reclose and fasten the trap-door, and grasping Sofia's wrist with cruel fingers hurried her back through the hallway.
Repeated breaks of pistol-fire guided them to the front room, a racket echoed in diminished volume from the street.
In an atmosphere already thick with acrid fumes of smokeless powder two men held the windows, firing through loopholes in iron-bound blinds of oak. At their feet a third squatted, reloading for them as occasion required. As Sofia and Victor entered one man dropped his weapon and, grunting, fell back from his window to nurse a shattered hand. Releasing the girl without another word, Victor caught up the pistol and took the vacant post.
Instantly, on peering out, he fired once, then again. Evidently missing both shots, he settled to await a better target, eyes intent to the loophole. In the course of the next few minutes he changed position but once, when, after firing several more shots, he tossed the empty weapon to the man on the floor and received a loaded one in exchange.
Seeing him thus employed, altogether forgetful, Sofia began to back toward the hall, step by cautious step, keeping her attention fixed to Victor throughout. But he seemed to be completely preoccupied with his markmanship, and paid her no heed.
Nevertheless, when she at length found courage to swing and dart away through the door, Victor flung three curt words to the fellow at his feet, who grunted, rose, and glided from the room in close chase.
The guard at the front door was not so busy as Sofia had hoped to find him, not too interested in the progress of siege operations outside to note her approach and look round from his peephole with a menacing grin of welcome; and his unmistakable readiness, as pistol in hand he took a single step toward her, drove the girl back to the foot of the stairs.
Then the other came swiftly after her, and Sofia swung in panic and stumbled up the steps. There were others up above, two to her certain knowledge, possibly many more of Victor's creatures; but if only she could find some sort of refuge in the uppermost fastnesses of the rookery, perhaps ...
Like a shape of smoke wind-driven, she sped up the first flight, then the second, only pausing at the head of the third and last flight to throw hunted glances right, left, and behind her.
Overhead a skylight with dingy panes diffused a dull blue glimmer which discovered a yawning door at her elbow, a pocket of black mystery beyond, and on the uppermost steps of the staircase her patient yellow shadow, his upturned eyes inscrutable but potentially revolting with their very concealment of the intent behind them.
Impossible that a worse thing could await her beyond that dark threshold....
She crossed it in one stride, swung the door to, and set her shoulders against it.
Outside she heard the shuffling footfalls pause. The knob rattled. But instead of the inward thrust against which she stood braced, there came the least of outward pulls, as if to make sure that the latch had caught; and after a brief pause a key grated in the lock, was withdrawn, and the slippered feet withdrew in turn.
When her lungs ceased to labour painfully, she took her courage in both hands and began to explore, groping blindly through darkness, encountering nothing till she blundered into a table which held a glass lamp for paraffin oil, like those in use below.
Fumbling over the top of the table, she found matches, struck one, and set its fire to the wick.
The flame waxed and grew steady in a crusted chimney, revealing a room with a slant ceiling and two dormer windows, boarded; in one corner a cot-bed with tumbled blankets, near this a low wooden stand, with a pipe, spirit lamp, and other paraphernalia of an opium smoker--no chairs, not another stick of furniture of any kind.
Removing the lamp, the girl set it on the floor, and pushed the table over against the door. By not so long as half a minute would its reinforcement delay Victor when he made up his mind to get in. But in such emergencies the human kind is not impatient of the most futile expedients.
There was nothing more she could do. She stood still, listening. The rattle of pistol fire three floors below continued in fits and starts, but the sound of it was oddly unreal, resembling more stammering explosions of a string of firecrackers than snaps of the whiplash of Death.
She tried one of the windows without encouragement, but at the other found a board with a loose end, which she pried aside, till through begrimed glass she could see a ghastly, weeping sky of daybreak and, by craning her neck, peer down into the dark gully of the street.
At first she thought it empty; but presently her straining vision made out two huddled shapes upon the farther sidewalk, close under the walls of a public house whose sign she could just barely decipher: the Red Moon.
Then, about to draw back from the window, she saw five men, oddly foreshortened figures from that lofty coign of view, leave the Red Moon by one of its bar entrances, bearing between them a heavy beam of wood, and with this improvised battering-ram aimed at the door to the besieged house, charge awkwardly across the cobbles.
The house spat fire from door and windows, a withering blast. In the middle of the street the beam was abandoned, three of its fool-hardy bearers took to their heels, each shaping an individual course, while one lay still upon the wet black stones, and another, apparently wounded in the legs, sought pitifully to drag himself by his arms, inch by inch, out of the zone of fire. But presently his efforts grew feeble, then he, too, lay stirless, prone in the sluicing rain.
The girl shrank back from the window, hiding her eyes as if to blot out that picture.
The light, that is to say the absence of it in true sense, the angle of view, and the distance, all had conspired to prevent her from making sure that neither her father nor Karslake were of those four whose broken bodies cluttered the street. But the fear and uncertainty were maddening....
She wheeled suddenly toward the door: the ancient stairs were creaking beneath a measured tread. She made an offer to add her weight to that of the table, but checked and fell back immediately, seeing the folly of sacrificing her strength, the wisdom of saving it to serve her when finally....
The creaking ceased, the wards of the lock grated, the knob turned, the door was thrust open--the table offering little hindrance if any. From the threshold Victor eyed the girl with a twitching grin.
"The time is at hand," he announced with a parody of punctilio. "We have beaten them off in the street, but they have found the tunnel from the cellar of the Red Moon, and are attacking from the river besides. So, my dear, it ends for us...."
In silence, shoulders to the wall farthest from the door, Sofia watched him unwinking. The lamp at her feet painted the tensely poised young body and bloodless face with quaint, stagey shadows.
Victor's glance ranged the cheerless room.
"I think you understand me," he said.
She might have been a waxwork dummy out of Madame Tussaud's.
A white blaze of madness transfigured Victor's countenance. He took one step toward Sofia.
In movements so precisely coordinated that they seemed one and instantaneous, the girl stooped, caught up the lamp, and threw it with all her might. Victor ducked his head. The lamp sailed on, described a descending curve through the open doorway into the well of the staircase, struck, and exploded. In the clutches of the maniac, Sofia was aware of the lurid glare, momentarily gaining strength, that filled the rectangle of the doorway.
In through this last, while iron hands tightened on her throat and consciousness grew dark with closing shadows, a man's shape passed, then another....
The grip on her throat grew lax, the hands left it free. She reeled, but somebody caught her up and bore her swiftly from the room, leaving two who fought together like beasts on the floor, locked in each other's arms, rolling and squirming, rearing and flopping....
The scorch of flames stung her cheek, but she forgot that when their broken light made visible the features of Karslake above the arms wherein she lay cradled.
Turning aside from the staircase, Karslake bore her to the ladder leading to the skylight, whose broken glass crunched beneath his heels at every step.
In the open air he pulled up for a moment's rest, but continued to hold Sofia in his arms. The wind raved about them, buffeted them, tore their breath away, rain pelted them like birdshot; but they clung to each other and were unaware of reason for complaint.
Presently, however, Karslake remembered, and anxiously endeavoured to disengage from these tenacious arms.
"Let me go, dearest," he muttered. "I must go back--I left your father to take care of Victor, and--"
As if evoked by his very solicitude Lanyard emerged from the skylight hatch, waved a hand in gay salute, then turned to stare down into the flaming pit from which he had climbed.
After a little he fell back a pace. Then slowly, with the laboured movements of exhaustion, Victor worked head and shoulders through the opening and dragged himself out upon the roof.
On all fours he held in doubt, his head moving from side to side like the head of a stricken beast, seeking his enemy with dazzled eyes. Then he made Lanyard out and, pulling himself together for the supreme effort, launched at his throat with the pounce of a great cat.
Lanyard met him halfway, caught him in the middle of his bound, wound wiry arms round the man and held him helpless.
His voice rang clear above the crackle of flames:
"Victor! have you forgotten how you threatened one night, twenty years ago, to follow me to the very gates of Hell, and what I promised you--that, if you did, I'd push you inside? Or did you think I would forget?"
He cast the man from him, backward, down into the hungry maw of that inferno....